In review - Books

How 'People's Movements in Pakistan' helps the activists of today

Updated May 06, 2017 07:35pm

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Activists hold placards during a walk held in Peshawar | Shahbaz Butt, White Star
Activists hold placards during a walk held in Peshawar | Shahbaz Butt, White Star

Aslam Khwaja’s book, People’s Movements in Pakistan, fills a major gap in our national historical discourse and could not have been published at a more opportune hour. It has come out at a time when poverty and misery among the subaltern sections of society are at an all-time high after three decades of unhindered neo-liberal capitalist expansion.

The same period has also witnessed the retreat of progressive modes of thinking and institutions of collective resistance that could possibly have reversed the abysmal elitist logic of neo-liberal capitalism. Consequently, people facing abject poverty and getting subsistence wages find themselves systematically disempowered.

This disempowerment, in turn, worsens their standard of living. In the midst of this vicious cycle, Khwaja’s book takes us on a historical journey that reminds us of a time when resistance to systemic oppression was not merely an ideal but a lived and experienced reality in Pakistan.

To truly appreciate the importance of his contribution, two factors need to be understood. First, in complete contrast to what the champions of neo-liberal economics had promised, three of their most favoured policies – privatisation, deregulation and fiscal reform – have resulted in highly unequal economic growth. As recent surveys conducted by the Planning Commission of Pakistan indicate, four out of 10 Pakistanis live in poverty today. The problem is much worse in rural areas – home to peasants and other farm workers – where a majority (55 per cent) lives in conditions of poverty.

Workers in urban areas do not fare better either — the incidence of massive working-class poverty coincides with a time when Pakistani workers have longer work hours at stagnant or declining real wages. The incidence of poverty is most pervasive in such peripheral regions as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (where 74 per cent people live in poverty), Balochistan (where 71 per cent people are poor), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (where 49 per cent of the population lives in poverty) and Sindh (where 43 per cent residents are poor).

Khwaja also sheds light on the role of often ignored Pakistani socialists and communists in resisting dictatorships and fighting under repressive circumstances for the rights of workers and peasants.

A gender-based breakdown of poverty data shows that an overwhelming majority of the victims of neo-liberal economic policies are women who suffer as mothers (confirmed by the staggering number of maternal mortality), as workers (most of them are engaged in unpaid domestic work) and as citizens (most of them are suffering from domestic abuse and harassment in public spaces). The question, of course, is why the ruling classes could get away with such disastrous economic policies and why their victims did not, or could not, resist them?

This brings us to the second factor. That the last three decades have been an economic disaster for the subaltern cannot be understood without appreciating what has happened during the same period to people’s movements and struggles for social justice. It is fairly well established in the economics literature that the distribution of economic resources in a country is a direct consequence of the relative bargaining powers of different sections of society. Who gets what is not determined by some abstract entity (such as market efficiency) but by the relative political power of various groups.

The work of economist Daron Acemoglu from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard political scientist James Robinson has shown that decline in the voice and power of labour unions, peasant organisations, women’s rights movements and students’ associations almost automatically translates into declining standards of living for these sections of a populace. Since economic distribution is neither neutral nor immune to people’s struggles, disengagement and/or repression of people’s democratic and political movements leads to the worsening of living conditions for these groups and an overall rise in inequality. This is exactly what has happened in Pakistan.

Yet, as Khwaja reminds us, things were not always as bleak as this. There was indeed a time in the not-so-distant past when people were actively engaged in organising resistance movements for social justice. The author takes a historical view and explores movements led by nationalist activists, trade unionists, peasant mobilisers, women’s rights campaigners and student associations in Pakistan in separate chapters with the aim to present various directions these movements have taken. A discerning reader will inevitably draw some important lessons from their successes as well as failures.

Khwaja starts his account with a discussion of the controversial ‘nationalities question’ that, according to him, has been a “sore spot” since Pakistan’s inception. He examines the evolution of various nationalist movements over the past seven decades and explains how these were defeated through praetorian means.

Many of them – including such luminaries as Tahira Mazhar Ali, Hajra Masood, Khadija Omar and Alys Faiz – were directly associated with the Communist Party of Pakistan.

He then presents a fairly detailed account of the civil disobedience movement against the martial law regime of General Ziaul Haq and shows how contradictions within and between the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) shaped its course. Khwaja also sheds light on the role of often ignored Pakistani socialists and communists in resisting dictatorships and fighting under repressive circumstances for the rights of workers and peasants.

Next he turns his attention to the trade union movement and offers a number of facts pertaining to the workers’ struggles during the colonial and postcolonial periods in a largely chronological order. While his description does not offer an analysis into the political economy of the trade union movement per se, his work can be extremely useful for scholars and activists who want to acquaint themselves with the history of protests by workers and their general strikes against the British capital during the first half of the 20th century.

For the post-independence period, the author describes in detail how the trade union movement reached its peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He then captures its subsequent decline in the wake of Zia’s dictatorship and the advent of neo-liberal economic policies in the 1990s.

In the chapter on women’s struggles for equality, Khwaja highlights the under-examined and often misunderstood yet crucial role that women activists played in carving out a better environment for both men and women in the late colonial and post-independence periods – often bravely negotiating and challenging traditional patriarchal public spaces. Many of them – including such luminaries as Tahira Mazhar Ali, Hajra Masood, Khadija Omar and Alys Faiz – were directly associated with the Communist Party of Pakistan.

Despite suffering from poor editing (and as a result of it becoming fairly dense), People’s Movements in Pakistan will be useful for all those – researchers, activists and common people alike – who want to know a thing or two about the struggles of ordinary men and women against capitalism, patriarchy, and ethnic/nationalistic discrimination in Pakistan. By underscoring the factors that have led to the rise and decline of people’s movements in the past, the book may help the activists of today to initiate struggles for equality and social justice in the future.


This was originally published in the Herald's April 2017 issue under the headline "Change Agents". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer is presently an assistant professor of social development and policy at the Habib University.